This article originally appeared in the ColoradoBiz online edition here.
Not long ago, I listened to a special feature about Ella Fitzgerald on KUVO (the wonderful Denver-based 24/7 jazz station). I was struck by one particular insight into her musical style:
“She let the song speak for itself.”
Fitzgerald didn’t try to lend a lot of emotion to the songs she sang. When covering other people’s songs, she didn’t try to make them an expression of her own ego, or to imbue them with new meaning. She simply sang every note beautifully.
I’m not saying Ella’s singing wasn’t unique — she had an indisputably distinctive voice. She was also innovative. Ella perfected the “scat” vocal technique, and that aspect of her singing indeed embodies her own musical persona. (Think of the improvisational sounding do dee ba, ooh be blib bidee dow! you hear in classic jazz tunes like Ella’s rendition of “How High the Moon.”) But she didn’t embellish. She sang on key, exuberant and with the rich and sweet voice she was naturally blessed with. That was more than enough.
Ella embodied class without pretentiousness, abundance without fluff and unforced individuality.
Prose, music, poetry … marketing
In writing, a common refrain similar to “Let the song speak for itself” is “Show, don’t tell.” A musical composition needs a capable singer to deliver, but its emotional force lies in the melody and lyrics. I have no problem with musical interpretation but adding sentiment to a fully formed composition can only do harm.
Acclaimed classical pianist Arthur Rubinstein loved Chopin and understood better than anyone how to bring his music to life. His recordings of Chopin’s nocturnes and mazurkas were marked by unsurpassed skill and nuance, but not sentiment. They’re poetic and moving, yet direct.
When singers try to make songs drip with emotion, don’t you sometimes feel that they’re trying to tell you how you’re supposed to feel? It’s like painting the Statue of Liberty red, white and blue. We get it already. Allowing people to interpret things through the lens of their own experiences, tastes, and values, shows respect for the intelligence of your audience. This is true in marketing as it is in music.
Vibrant language versus fluff
The failure or reluctance to use vibrant language is a common missed opportunity in business-to-business (B2B) marketing. Vibrant language is invaluable if your firm offers intangibles. It can bring un-sexy services like home energy audits, point of sale software, seed-to-sale tracking or environmental remediation to life. But there’s an important distinction between vibrant language and fluff.
Vibrant language is precise yet lively. While flowery, emotionally embroidered statements can come across as manipulative, people welcome simply stated analogies, humor and stories. (Again, that’s true even in B2B marketing.)
Good literary techniques like metaphors can make unfamiliar topics tangible and memorable.
These vividly evoke feelings, senses and memories without needing many adjectives. If you describe something really well using vivid language, you don’t need to tell people it’s “exquisite.” People will fill in the gaps for themselves, to greater effect.
Fluff is when you use flowery language, jargon and superlatives. This may reflect an effort to sound smart or manipulate opinions. Or it may be inadvertent.
Consumers are increasingly distrustful of marketing rhetoric, promises, and boasts. Anytime you’re tempted to say “cutting-edge,” “innovative,” “awesome,” or some other superlative, say “f%@#ing” instead. Then delete all the F-bombs before you publish. (If you forget to do this, things can get embarrassing.)
Harnessing the strength of restraint
Ella’s voice and style have often been described with words like “serene” and “unpretentious.” She is, perhaps, the most beloved vocalist in U.S. history.
“Ella can do anything to a melody except damage,” wrote L.A. Times jazz critic Leonard Feather. Without embellishing, without “telling” people how they were supposed to feel, she gave each song a force of beauty and emotion few have ever matched. Much like Rubinstein.
The next time you’re thinking about what “voice” to adopt for your marketing, think of Ella. It might prevent you from setting off people’s bullshit detectors.
I help purpose-driven entrepreneurs elevate their marketing through storytelling, humor, and clear strategic messaging.
Posted on: October 11, 2019